How to fake a fireplace, with or without heat

Adorable golden retriever gets cozy in front of an electric fireplace. ( Chernetska)
Adorable golden retriever gets cozy in front of an electric fireplace. ( Chernetska)

Fireplaces are indisputably cozy. They evoke fresh snow and hot cocoa, winter weekends holed up in rustic cabins, favorite stews simmering on the stove. While installing a real, wood-burning one requires serious construction and money, if it's just those comforting vibes that you're after -- and not necessarily the genuine flames -- there are easier alternatives.

Here's how to pull off a faux fireplace, according to homeowners who've done it.

Install an electric insert

The first faux option is to go electric. These inserts, which generally range in price from a couple hundred dollars to a few thousand, offer the look of flames without actually producing any, meaning there's no wood or ventilation required. While the exact technology varies from model to model, many versions pull off the fire effect with digital LED screens and mirrors that reflect and refract light. Some include faux logs.

If you already have a fireplace opening, just one that isn't functional, you can put an electric insert directly into it. (If you don't have an existing opening, you can build one; more on that below.) The key, according to Frank Martinelli, a contractor with MCM General Contracting Group in New Jersey, is measuring correctly and ensuring you've got a power source. The inserts come in a variety of sizes, depths and shapes (including arched) to work for the space you already have.

If you don't have an outlet in the right spot, it's not a major problem, as long as your house is built up to code with outlets every few feet. Tom Moschella, an independent contractor in Massachusetts, explains that a professional will have to snake wiring through the wall to set up a new outlet exactly where your new fireplace will plug in. Both he and Martinelli agreed this is an easy project that won't take more than a day or two.

Maddie Kelly, who posts her do-it-yourself endeavors on Instagram as bluerushhome, went with an electric insert for her home, settling on a model by PuraFlame that was "as realistic as fake fire can look." She bought it on Amazon for just under $300. "I get compliments on it all the time, and it didn't break the bank."

It was important to Kelly that the insert generate real heat, if not real flames. How does this work? In most models, a fan sucks up air from the room, heats it with a metal coil, then expels it back out. Martinelli advises paying attention to the overall size of your space before selecting your insert. "If it gives off too much heat, you won't want to sit in the room."

Create a decorative fireplace nook

If you don't care about heat or the illusion of flames, a mantel over some kind of nook or opening is all you need.

For Lyndsey Wardman, an interior designer in Durham, England, her childhood home dictated her choice. "I grew up with an electric fire, so I was never keen on them personally," she says. "I'd prefer just a space in which you have options like a log basket, candles or even books."

Wardman created her fireplace focal point with a plaster bump-out, a vintage slab of wood repurposed from a railroad tie as a mantel, and a basket full of picturesque logs inside the hearth. It may not generate literal warmth, but it at least warms up the design of the room.

Ashley Taraneh, who's documenting the do-it-yourself renovation of her home on Instagram as myuglysplitlevel, has built three fake fireplaces of varying sizes and aesthetics, with and without electric inserts.

Build the opening

Whether you're going electric or totally decorative, if you aren't working with an existing fireplace opening, you'll need to make a new one, either by cutting a hole into your wall or building one out. For a professional contractor, Moschella estimates building a new surround "wouldn't take longer than a weekend, and that is with allowing your joint compound to dry."

For the extra-ambitious homeowner, a do-it-yourself job isn't out of the question. Kelly's electric fireplace was the first project she tackled on her own when she started updating her house a year-and-a-half ago. She advises that you'll need to know your way around a miter saw and a drill.

But if you have any reservations at all about your skill level, "I wouldn't recommend just cutting into your already-existing wall yourself," she warns. "There are studs and wires, and structural issues that could arise." Kelly used inexpensive 2-by-4s from her local hardware store and drywall to build the opening for her electric insert. She framed the surround for her insert, measuring and determining where it would eventually sit, and then got to work drywalling. After her surround was constructed and the insert was installed, she added wood trim to frame it out. "It makes it look sealed into the wall and complete," she says.

Add a mantel

Building your own mantel is an arguably easier do-it-yourself task than crafting the entire opening. Taraneh has done it three different times, using pine construction lumber. Each of her mantels is essentially a hollow, rectangular box made from wood planks. She cut their edges at 45-degree angles, then "fit them together to make it look like a solid block of wood." She stained them with a finish that made the wood appear aged.

You can also buy a mantel from a big-box source such as Wayfair, or for something more unique, try the antique route, like the wood from an old railroad tie that Wardman repurposed.

Finish your opening

If you've gone for a fireplace without an electric insert, you'll need to finish and fill in the empty hollow.

Wardman suggests laying brick slips, or tiles that give the look and texture of actual brick, inside the empty space and on the hearth. Martinelli cautions that "there is a whole field of quality for brick slips" and that real-looking brick will probably be more expensive.

If the traditional brick look isn't for you, any kind of tile will work, too. Or, for a lower commitment approach, you can also just use paint, as Wardman has done in her own home. "I like to change things up, and tile would be too permanent," she says. For contrast, she painted her faux fireplace's surround green and the interior beige.

For the final touch, filling the opening with pillar candles of varying heights can create a romantic look that incorporates some actual fire. Stacked logs, either on their own or in a wicker basket, are another reliable option. For the interior of her fireplace, Wardman filled a wicker basket with assorted logs wrapped in string lights.

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